You’d be forgiven for thinking nothing happens in the garden in winter, but this is not the case. Many shrubs wait until winter to show off their flowers against bare stems, taking us by surprise with a relative onslaught of colour and scent. Others hide their flowers among evergreen foliage, leaving you wondering where that scent is coming from. Scent is particularly valuable in the winter garden so consider planting scented shrubs along paths and by doorways to give an unexpected lift on a cold, dull day. Here are ten shrubs with scented flowers that come into their own as temperatures drop.
Sweet box or Christmas box, there are two species most often seen in gardens, both evergreen. Sarcococca confusa has tiny flowers that punch well above their weight in terms of fragrance.
A resilient plant that can grow to two metres in height, it has glossy dark green leaves between which the male and female flowers simultaneously appear in clusters, followed by shiny black fruit. Sarcococca hookeriana var humilis is a smaller shrub, growing to just 60cm, and Sarcococca hookeriana ‘Purple Stem’ has dark purple young stems.
An evergreen, slow-growing shrub or small tree, the inconspicuous flowers appear on the undersides of the branches in late winter and early spring and smell like vanilla, or some say chocolate. ‘Variegata’ has pretty cream edges to the leaves, and is the hardiest of the species. It's a good idea to plant near a window where the scent can waft in.
With an architectural habit and shiny foliage, flowering from November to March, the bright yellow flower-spikes radiate upwards and outwards from the shoot tips. The flowers smell like lily of the valley, so much so that Mahonias are called the lily of the valley bush. The flowers are followed by dark blue berries. ‘Charity’ is still one of the best varieties. ‘Winter sun’ is a compact shrub from the Slieve Donard nursery with fragrant flowers. Mahonia nitens ‘Caberet’ has red and yellow flowers. Mahonia leaves are a little spiny so be careful where they are planted.
There are many witch hazels in shades of orange, red and yellow. All have spidery flowers on bare stems and varying degrees of fragrance. ‘Arnold Promise’ has clear yellow flowers with a heady scent. From the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, it is hardier than it looks. Witch hazels need good drainage and prefer an acidic soil, but can tolerate lime if the soil is fertile and free draining. Other varieties to look out for are ‘Aphrodite’, ‘Jelena’, ‘Westerstede’ and ‘Diane’.
‘Praecox’ means ‘before its time’, and the waxy yellow flowers of Wintersweet are definitely early. It is a shrub that benefits from being grown against a sunny wall, but grows easily in any soil, particularly chalk. ‘Grandiflorus’ has deep yellow flowers with maroon markings on the inside. ‘Luteus’ has larger pure yellow flowers that open later. Chimonanthus can take a few years to flower, but the glorious scent is worth the wait.
Lonicera fragrantissima as the name suggests is a honeysuckle with great scent, and its small flowers appear all winter. It is one of the longest flowering shrubs, and can go from pre-Christmas until Easter, providing nectar for early bees. Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ is a rounded shrub, nondescript in summer, but its sweetly scented cream flowers appear in winter and early spring, making it a must-have.
It will grow in any aspect, including against a north-facing wall, but flowers better with a bit of sun.
A hardy deciduous shrub, related to Forsythia and for that reason also called White Forsythia. It does well on a sunny wall where the young wood will ripen better and the sweetly scented flowers on bare stems are protected from frosts. It is in danger of extinction in its native Korea. It can be grown from semi-ripe cuttings in mid-summer.
Also called the paper bush, as it is used in Japan for making high-quality paper, including that used for currency. It was named for Michael Pakenham Edgeworth, an amateur botanist who hailed from Longford. The clusters of scented pale yellow flowers appear on the end of bare stems from late winter to mid-spring. Not totally hardy, it needs a sheltered sunny spot that is well drained. ‘Red Dragon’ has striking orange-red flowers.
The leaves of ‘Aureomarginata’ have a cheerful yellow margin and the fragrant flowers are reddish on the outside and white inside. Daphnes can be a bit of a diva in the garden, although established plants look after themselves.
In the early years, you may need to tip-toe around them, as the roots are sensitive to disturbance and they hate being moved. Give them a prime spot in partial shade with good drainage in limey soil, and they should be happy. ‘Eternal fragrance’, a newer introduction, is slightly less temperamental.
Of course, no list of winter scented shrubs would be complete without the inclusion of Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Named after Bodnant Gardens in Wales, the powerfully scented pink flowers appear from late autumn to spring, and must contain some sort of botanic antifreeze, as they are incredibly resistant to frost.
Viburnum farreri, a parent of ‘Dawn’, is said to be one of the most popular of all shrubs and a great addition to the winter garden. The leaves are bronze when young and the sweetly scented flowers occur in drooping clusters, pink in bud but white in bloom.
Candidissimum has pure white flowers. Viburnum x burkwoodii is one of my favourite scented plants. It flowers in spring but also sporadically through the year so I’m including it here for that reason.
So, while some of the above are more hardy than the others, there is definitely a scented winter shrub for every aspect, and every garden should have one.
It has been so wet that very little can be done in the garden, but if you feel like it you can start to tidy up herbaceous plants, as many will have turned to a soggy mess by now. People always ask about Hydrangeas and when to prune them. The answer is in spring. Leave the old flowers on over winter to protect the new buds and to give some interest in the garden over winter. Frosted Hydrangea heads are very pretty.
If you like flower arranging you might like to attend ‘My Way With Flowers’, a talk by Margaret Quinn this Wednesday, November 19 at 8pm, Wesley House, Leeson Park, Dublin 6. See rhsi.ie for details.